Impact of MLK Day in Arizona

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Arizona State University English professor Neal Lester talks about the impact of Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Arizona on race relations and more.

TED: GOOD EVENING, WELCOME TO THIS SPECIAL MARTIN LUTHER KING DAY EDITION OF HORIZON. ARIZONA BECAME THE FIRST STATE IN WHICH VOTERS AND NOT LAWMAKERS APPROVED THE HOLIDAY. TO TALK ABOUT WHAT THE HOLIDAY HAS MEANT FOR OUR STATE ASU PROFESSOR NEAL LESTER, A WINNER AT THIS YEAR'S TEMPE MLK DIVERSITY AWARDS.

NEAL LESTER: THANKS FOR HAVING ME.

TED: THE HISTORY IS PRETTY WELL KNOWN. ORIGINALLY RESCINDED FOR A VARIETY OF REASONS. LONGED TO HONOR MARTIN LUTHER KING WITH MORE THAN ONE INDIVIDUAL. IN '92, THE STATE APPROVED THE HOLIDAY. THAT'S A PRETTY ROUGH AND TUMBLE HISTORY. NOT MANY STATES HAVE THAT KIND OF BACKGROUND.

NEAL LESTER: CORRECT. 1992 IS NOT THAT FAR AWAY. IN FACT, IT'S IN MY LIFETIME, IN MY LIFETIME BEING IN ARIZONA. WHILE I WASN'T IMMEDIATELY PART OF THAT CONVERSATION, I HEARD ABOUT THE CONVERSATION WHILE IN ALABAMA. IT DID BECOME PART OF MY DECISION ABOUT WHETHER OR NOT TO COME HERE. OTHER PLACES HAD HISTORIES EQUALLY CONTENTIOUS RELATIVE TO RACE RELATIONS. PEOPLE WOULD SAY, YOU REALIZE ARIZONA IS NOT A PLACE THEY'LL HONOR THE MLK HOLIDAY. I THOUGHT IT MEANS THERE'S WORK TO DO. I DISCOVERED IN 1997, HOWEVER, THAT WHILE RACE RELATIONS WERE NOT DEFINED IN BLACK/WHITE, THEY WERE DETERMINED IN WHITE/BROWN. IF YOUR SKIN IS BROWN AND YOU SPEAK SPANISH, YOUR CIVIL RIGHTS CAN BE VIOLATED. IT REMINDED ME THAT HAVING THE HOLIDAY DIDN'T NECESSARILY CHANGE HEARTS OF THOSE THAT LIVE HERE. POLICY CAN'T NECESSARILY CHANGE HEARTS.

TED: YOU CAME FROM ALABAMA, STRAIGHT TO HERE. THE FOLKS IN BIRMINGHAM AND OTHER PARTS OF THE COUNTRY, WE WERE WONDERING, THOSE OF US THAT LIVED HERE AT THE TIME, WHAT ARE WE LOOKING LIKE TO THE REST OF THE NATION.

NEAL LESTER: ALABAMA DIDN'T HAVE A LOT OF ROOM TO SPEAK IN THAT ARENA. I WAS IN THE UNIVERSITY WHERE GEORGE WALLACE WAS STANDING IN THE DOOR TO KEEP BLACK PEOPLE OUT. I DIDN'T WANT TO GO TO MISSISSIPPI BECAUSE BODIES HUNG FROM POPULAR TREES THERE. IT'S NOT UNIQUE TO ARIZONA BUT SOMETHING HAPPENING ACROSS THE COUNTRY, THE NOTION OF RACIAL DIVISION. THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT BROUGHT THAT OUT. BECAUSE WE WERE ABLE TO PASS LEGISLATION TO STOP JIM CROW LAWS AND GET PEOPLE TO VOTE DIDN'T MEAN PEOPLE ACCEPTED THE CHANGE. IT'S THE SAME SORT OF THING WE SEE TODAY. THERE MAY BE PROGRESS, BUT THERE ARE WAYS POLICY DOESN'T CHANGE PEOPLE'S HEARTS OR ACTIONS.

TED: HAVE WE LOST SIGHT OF THE MEANING OF THE HOLIDAY. YOU SAY IT'S NOT THAT LONG AGO --

NEAL LESTER: IT'S NOT THAT LONG AGO. I GREW UP IN THE DEEP SOUTH. I SEE SOME OF THE SAME KINDS OF MANIFESTATIONS OF RACIAL DIFFERENCE HERE EXCEPT IT'S BROWN PEOPLE. THERE IS AN AWARENESS THAT TO DEFINE SOMEONE'S SELF, WE HAVE TO DEFINE SOMEONE ELSE NEGATIVELY. TO TALK ABOUT ONE'S OWN STRENGTH WAS NOT THE FOCUS. IT WAS ABOUT HOW BAD THE OTHER CANDIDATE WAS, NOT ABOUT HOW STRONG I AM. WHAT IS REAL IS DISPARAGING SOMEONE ELSE.

TED: WE HAVE HAD YOU ON FOR HUMANITIES 101. YOU HAVE COMPASSION, INTEGRITY, EMPATHY, FORGIVENESS. I WANT TO ASK AGAIN, WHY ARE WE LIKE THAT?

NEAL LESTER: WE HAVE ALWAYS BEEN LIKE THAT. THERE IS A SENSE THAT -- YOU KNOW, THE HUMAN CONDITION IS SORT OF ROOTED INDIFFERENCE. IT'S EASY TO IMAGINE THAT IN THE WORST OF TIMES, WE ALSO HAVE THE BEST OF TIMES. THE WORST OF TIMES, THE COUNTRY WAS FOUNDED ON VIOLENCE AGAINST A GROUP OF PEOPLE. WE FORGET ABOUT THAT. WE HAVE CONVERSATIONS ABOUT IMMIGRATION RECOGNIZING THAT THOSE THAT CAME AND DISCOVERED THIS COUNTRY WERE ALSO IMMIGRANTS. THE NOTION THAT VIOLENCE IS NEW OR THAT WE HAVE ALWAYS BEEN THE BEST TO EACH OTHER DOESN'T BEAR OUT IN OUR AMERICAN HISTORY. WE HAVEN'T LOST OUR HUMANITY. WE HAVE TO CONTINUALLY FIND OUR HUMANITY EVEN IN THE MOMENTS WE SEEM TO BE OUR MOST INHUMANE.

TED: DO WE FAIL IN THE SENSE OF SELF REFLECTION?

NEAL LESTER: I THINK THAT'S ONE OF THE HARDEST THINGS TO DO. I THINK IT'S EASIEST TO POINT FINGERS AND BLAME AT OTHERS INSTEAD OF LOOKING AT WHAT WE BRING TO THE TABLE OR NOT BRINGING TO THE TABLE. THE WHOLE LIST OF PRINCIPLES, RESPECT, EMPATHY, COMPASSION, FORGIVENESS, KINDNESS, SELF REFLECTION MEANS YOU DON'T HAVE TO DO THIS WITH SOMEONE ELSE. YOU HAVE TO LOOK INWARDLY AND LOOK IN THE MIRROR AND MAKE A CHOICE TO SEE THAT YOU ARE THE BEST PERSON YOU CAN BE. PRESIDENT OBAMA SAID IT ON THE OCCASION OF THE TUCSON TRAGEDY, WE MAY NOT BE ABLE TO STOP ALL OF THE EVIL IN THE WORLD, BUT HOW WE TREAT EACH OTHER IS UP TO US. THAT'S WHAT MLK IS ABOUT, HOW WE REACT TO THE SITUATIONS.

TED: MARTIN LUTHER KING'S MESSAGE, IT'S BEEN A WHILE -- 50 SOME ODD YEARS NOW. IF HE WERE THERE TODAY -- HE WOULD BE TWEETING. WHO KNOWS HOW THE MESSAGE WOULD GET OUT HERE, BUT THE IMPACT OF THE MESSAGE THEN, CAN ANY MESSAGE HAVE THE SAME IMPACT NOW?

NEAL LESTER: IT STILL DOES, THOUGH. WHEN WE TALK ABOUT CHANGE, THERE IS AN URGENCY MISSING FROM DR. KING'S LEGACY. HIS "I HAVE A DREAM SPEECH" IS NOT ABOUT BEING PATIENT BUT BEING IMPATIENT. THERE'S MONEY IN THE BANK THAT AMERICA HASN'T MADE GOOD ON. WE ARE TALKING ABOUT THAT IN MANY GROUPS, NOT NECESSARILY BLACK PEOPLE AND BROWN PEOPLE, BUT POOR PEOPLE. WE FORGET THE ECONOMIC COMPONENT OF THAT. OTHERS HAVE ADOPTED THE WE SHALL OVER COME WHETHER IT'S FIGHTING LGBTQ, NOT SAYING THEY ARE SYNONOMOUS BUT INTERSECTING THERE. UNTIL WE LOOK AT THE HUMANITY OF EVERY INDIVIDUAL, WE'LL CONTINUE TO ASK THAT QUESTION, ARE WE LOSING OUR HUMANITY AND HOW DO WE PROGRESS.

TED: IS THERE AN EBB AND FLOW?

NEAL LESTER: IF WE LOOK AT IT NOT IN TERM OF BLACK AND WHITE OR GOOD AND BAD BUT LOOK AT IT AS COMPLEX. CHARLES DICKENS SAID IT WAS THE BEST OF TIMES, THE WORST OF TIMES, A TIME OF DARKNESS, A TIME OF LIGHT. WE HAVE ALWAYS HAD A CHALLENGE OF RECONCILING THOSE, OUR PERSONAL LIVES, PROFESSIONAL LIVE AND POLITICAL LIVES.

TED: POLITICAL LIVES, WHAT'S HAPPENING IN POLITICS NOW, IS IT RETRO GRADE HERE? ARE THE WAVES GOING BACK OUT TO THE SEA?

NEAL LESTER: EIGHT YEARS AGO, EVERYBODY WASN'T -- THERE WERE PEOPLE FOAMING AT THE MOUTH WHEN PRESIDENT OBAMA WON. THIS IS THE BEST OF TIMES. IT WAS THE WORST OF TIMES. THE HUMAN CONDITION IS HOW DO YOU RESOLVE THOSE? A COMPETITION WHICH THIS IS, AN ELECTION SOMEONE WINS AND SOMEONE LOSES. HOW DO WE LOOK AT THE MOMENTS BETWEEN ELECTIONS TO GET ALONG AND DEMONSTRATE OUR HUMANITY TO EACH OTHER. I THINK THAT'S THE CHALLENGE.

TED: LAST QUESTION. MARTIN LUTHER KING DAY, WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO YOU?

NEAL LESTER: I HOPE IT MEANS MORE THAN MARCHS AND RESUSCITATIONS OF "I HAVE A DREAM." I HOPE WE HAVE STRENGTH OF CHARACTER TO DIGEST SO IT'S REAL FOR EACH OF US AND SO WE DON'T STOP DREAMING OF POSSIBILITIES. WE CAN'T RESORT TO CYNICISM AND PESSIMISM. WE HAVE TO BELIEVE WE CAN BE SEPARATE AS THE FINGERS YET ONE IS THE HAND. THAT'S WHAT I TRY TO DO IN THE CLASSROOM, AS A SCHOLAR, AS A PARENT, SPOUSE AND DECENT HUMAN BEING. THAT'S A CHALLENGE FOR EACH AND EVERY ONE OF US NO MATTER WHERE WE ARE IN OUR LIVES.

TED: GOOD TO SEE YOU AGAIN. YOU HOLD A TEMPE DIVERSITY AWARD. WE ARE GLAD YOU WERE ABLE TO JOIN US. THANK YOU VERY MUCH.

Neal Lester: ASU English Professor

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